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Nabbing Casino Crooks - 2002-07-24

Casino gambling continues to spread throughout America's heartland, generating an estimated $30 billion in revenue each year. Gambling parlors are dimly lit and smoky, filled with the constant din of electronic games, flashing lights and cheers or groans, from blackjack or roulette tables. They're also filled with cheaters… who cost the casinos as much as five percent of their annual profit, more than $1 billion a year. In Missouri, catching these con men and enforcing scores of gaming laws is the responsibility of the Highway Patrol … and part of the job is learning how to play.

Several times a year, a few dozen state troopers come here, to this plain office building in Jefferson City, Missouri. Every day for two weeks, they file down two flights of stairs to the building's basement, to a dark room identified by a sign on the door 'training lab.' But flip on the lights, and what once was a basement classroom comes to life:

Slot machines line the walls. Two giant game tables sit in the middle of the room, and blackjack tables form a U-shape at the far end.

"You can see it looks kinda like a casino, but that was so you could get a feel for the atmosphere," says Chris Baker who coordinates training for the Missouri Gaming Commission, and is one of the brains behind this operation. From the plush red carpet on the floor, to the security cameras in the ceiling, the room's been furnished so troopers can get a taste of what they'll face inside one of the state's 11 casinos.

The point of the lab, Mr. Baker says, is to learn how things actually run in a controlled environment. "You'll find, for example, when you look at the tables we'll actually play craps to know how bets are played. To know how bets are being played properly you have to learned by playing It will get a little noisy when we're doing those kinds of things but it's still controlled."

The State troopers who come to this basement lab learn how to shoot craps and play blackjack at tables from a now-defunct Saint Louis casino. Trainers like Chris Baker also crack open the computerized brains of slot machines for troopers to see how they work… and how they can be rigged.

But there are some who feel the mock-realism of a classroom casino won't do much to help officers spot cheaters. Dustin Marks is a self-professed former blackjack cheat who changed his ways. He wrote two books that explain how cheaters can beat casino blackjack tables.

Mr. Marks says that instead of moving cops off the roads and into casinos, states should draw from those already on the inside. "It still would be better to get people who have been in the casino environment and teach them the law, you know how to arrest people and all that. It's very hard, you know once a person's got that cop mentality, it's very hard to teach people how to blend in to a casino environment," he says. "It's not impossible but it's a difficult chore."

Difficult, perhaps, but necessary, according to state officials… and not just to catch cheaters. Inside the mock casino's surveillance room, Highway Patrol Lieutenant Bob Zubeck points to a cardboard box full of volumes of casino regulations, each more than 7 centimeters thick. After the troopers learn to play craps and roulette, they focus on the scores of gaming regulations governing casino management. …Things like how to approve each piece of gaming equipment before it's put into operation, or how money changes hands between the dealer and the casino's bank.

Lieutenant Zubeck says the training they get at the state gaming lab makes the troopers effective undercover officers. "For years, we were out there learning day to day on the job. And today we come down here and we have a training facility, you go out to the properties and now we're ready to go. So, I can't tell you that I see that arrests are up necessarily because we've been very efficient from day one. It just enhances our ability."

Missouri's casino classroom costs around $100,000 a year to operate, and gaming enforcement Officials have proposed opening the facility to other states. States with casino gambling already share information about cheaters, because, as they readily admit, casino crooks are usually one step ahead of those patrolling floors… and any inside information will help them even the odds.